Epicor Perspectives 2010: my wrap

Key points from Epicor user conference: Epicor 9 is stabilising, mobile is solid and has depth, cloud computing is still an afterthought and social computing will take a customer specific path. All in, a solid show with much to commend.

Epicor Perspectives 2010 was  a much more confident affair than 2009 but there is still plenty for Epicor to think about. In this wrap post I am talking from the position of having specific interests rather than a detailed dive.

Generally: as I outlined in the keynote report, the company is continuing to position itself as a broad based but industry focused player in the small and medium sized market. This year Epicor made much play of retail with nods in the direction of defense and professional services industries rather than manufacturing. Retail is a strong market for Epicor but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise that 2009-10 has been a rough year. The company hopes that 2010-11 will be better and audience polls suggest that fears of a double dip are receding. I'd rather not comment on that though I would caution any vendor to be aware that sentiment can change rapidly.

Mobile: Epicor's process play out to mobile devices and specifically the Mobile Sales Assistant release allows customers to cross functional boundaries with ease. There was one nugget I unearthed right at the end during a mobile labs session. Epicor has a concept of 'ad hoc' purchasing. This could be because an essential part usually subject to procurement processes is not available from approved suppliers or it could be because the field service rep needs some sundry piece of kit not in the parts catalog or on the van. This information is captured for both later analysis and billing or expensing purposes. The information can be semantically analysed for pattern recognition. This is a classic example of what Sig Rinde would describe as the output from a barely repeatable process. It forms the basis for exception handling that in turn could help reduce operating costs. I like the idea.

Cloud: Epicor is still taking baby steps in this direction. It could do much more and needs to internationalise quickly if it is not to be left behind as NetSuite, SAP, BrightPearl, Plex Systems and others gain broader recognition as the mainstream picks up on what SaaS/cloud offers.

Epicor 9: In meeting with customers it is clear Epicor has a communications exercise on its hands and needs to beef up first line support. Too often I heard frustration that call centers are not able to answer questions or it was difficult to find someone knowledgable enough to answer specifics. However, the small (700 out of 20,000) user group is growing and working closely with Epicor across all product lines though there is a natural emphasis on the 9.x line. Epicor is promoting the user group, led by Jeff Glaze, who I found to be enthusiastic and willing to learn about community experiences elsewhere. It is early days but there is much expectation that a meaningful user group can provide the kinds of experience based checks and balances that all vendors need. Given the mistakes I have seen others make, there is every reason to assume Epicor's customers can benefit from community based efforts.

I said earlier that I find Epicor to be somewhat timid in its marketing but I also learned late on that they are putting resource into a group aimed at reaching the larger customer. This is good news because despite teething troubles, I am of the opinion that version 9 stands up well to competition in its chosen vertical markets. As always, the devil is in the selection detail.

Social computing: (See video at the top of this post.) Epicor has half a story it has yet to flesh out although there are collaboration tools in development. Rather than fall into the 'Twitter for Enterprise' trap, they prefer the notion of 'activity streams.' I didn't see evidence they are taking soundings from experts in the field which is something of a disappointment. However I did learn they have built their own search and are likely to have a client that looks something akin to Tweetdeck. The reason for building search is because they want messages to come directly from the ERP. According to their development lead, attempting to get this from Sharepoint would have been prohibitively expensive.

Epicor recognises that for it's customer base, activity streams don't have to be complex but they do have to be relevant. They are currently concentrating on exposing events that arise from the ERP and getting the solution to note them in an intelligible manner. People can then subscribe to what's happening alongside freeform entries. I see this having many use cases, a topic we discussed at some length.

There is some debate whether it is better to offer this as a hosted service. That's the better option in my opinion because of the average user count within each customer. It means that Epicor can view its solution as a learning platform. Whether that's practically feasible is a point of discussion but if it can be done then customers may well benefit from the knowledge of Epicor's approximately half a million users across 20,000 customers. In the meantime, expect to see this solution some time in the first half of 2011.